Skip to main content

Is it real coffee, or some Scandinavian Christmas potion?

The Ref
aka Hostile Hostages
(1994)

(SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s a mistake to offer up a Christmas-set movie that doesn’t evoke a Christmas glow, or even a glimmer, regardless of whether – as in this case – it reaches a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. Anything you care to look at spanning any degree of tones and genres – from Die Hard, to Bad Santa, to The War of the Roses to Gremlins – understands this, to a greater or lesser extent. The Ref, set as it is on Christmas Eve, rather manages to miss the Yule boat.

George: You wanna see Santa falling down everyone’s chimney?

Some might say that’s the point. But that means the setting becomes a turn off and the change in mood at its conclusion pointless. There’s a good idea here – from Richard LaGravenese, who scored with The Fisher King a couple of years earlier, and sister-in-law Marie Weiss – but Ted Demme and his No Cure for Cancer stand-up star Denis Leary fail to capitalise on it. I thought No Cure was hilarious at the time, boasting Leary and his unrepentant bad-boy act (obviously, he has since sold out to the max, although not as much as his fellow stand-up smoker Bill Hicks – he became Alex Jones, of course).

Connie: You call your patients wackos?
Gus: Yeah, they er, like it.

Like many a stand-up, Leary is rather straightjacketed by straight narrative comedy. It didn’t work for him in Demolition Man either. Sure, he’d get the hang of the performance well enough, but his bits here are mostly the least-interesting part of The Ref, particularly as it tries to make him the titular straight man, presiding over the feuding marital breakdown of Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey). You’re waiting for him to unleash on those deserving of opprobrium, but instead the structure hones in on a worm (Lloyd) turning on his mother (Glynis Johns, in toweringly obnoxious form).

Caroline: How can we both be in the marriage and I’m miserable and you’re content?
Lloyd: Luck?

Leary’s agreeable, but he needs to be more than that. Spacey and Davis, in contrast, are fire and brimstone, perfectly cast as a ferociously dyspeptic, dysfunctional couple. Davis is all wired brittleness. Spacey, never convincing when he’s going for softness, and that isn’t hindsight talking, can’t really persuade when they reach the makeup stage, but this kind of role, for the most part, is a tour-de-force of sour jibes, and he has a face made for disdain.

Lloyd: You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross.

I recall thinking the picture didn’t quite hit the mark when I first saw it, especially chafing as I also remember the preceding positive reviews. Of the “Why was this not a hit?” variety (and a Simpson and Bruckheimer movie at that; their first box office misfire in a decade). Revisiting it again, it has evident problems with its structure. Gus (Leary) kidnaps Caroline and Lloyd, fine. But then what? The annoyingly entrepreneurial son returns (Robert J Steinmiller), the in-laws pay a house call, and so everyone has to play dress up.

Gus: From now on, the only person who yells is me.

It’s less escalation than sidestepping. The hostage situation of Hostile Hostages – yes, its UK title – never arrives, and yet it seemed to be brewing with the subplot concerning Raymond J Barry’s police lieutenant (it’s a fairly middling one, culminating in a “I nailed your wife” jibe involving a wiped videotape).

So we settle on something out of a lesser Chevy Chase movie, as Carol presents a traditional Scandinavian dinner complete with ornate candle headgear. Plus, the conceit of Gus posing as their counsellor (BD Wong in the early scenes) is utilised for its maximum farce value.

George: You think you can take me? I’m Santa Claus!

On the casting front, Christine Baranski appears as Caroline’s sister in law, and JK Simmons makes his movie debut as the military school officer Jesse is blackmailing. Neighbour George (Bill Raymond) is a drunk Santa, but the kind of dunk Santa that gives Billy Bob Thornton’s a good name.

Gus: Your husband isn’t dead, lady. He’s hiding.

It seems test audiences didn’t much like an ending where Gus gives himself up in order to show Jesse a life of crime is nothing to aspire to, and execs instead had him escape with accomplice Murray (Richard Bright). Given that ending was shot January 1994, it might explain why The Ref didn’t garner a Christmas 1993 release. What it doesn’t explain is why Disney then dumped it in March. Who goes to see a Christmas movie in March? Apart from Ebenezer Scrooge, gloating?

Why not just hold it back nine months? Time was, the UK would get its US Christmas movies a whole year later, such were the vagaries of release schedules – and invariably straight to video at that. Of course, US tastes in Christmas have always been somewhat mysterious.

John: Maybe they’ll catch him and let him go, in the Spirit of Christmas.
Connie: That is not the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is either you’re good or you’re busted and then you burn in hell.

Take Home Alone. Even giving families the benefit of the doubt and a lingering Yule sensation until MLK Weekend, it subsequently made another $80m by the time it dropped out of release in June! Gremlins was released in June. Die Hard in July. There’s no rhyme or reason. But even given such nuttiness, you just don’t release a movie set at Christmas ten weeks after. That’s plain crazy.


Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.